Game Of Thrones: where fantasy and soap opera meet

Feature Andrew Blair 26 Mar 2013 - 07:00

Andrew argues that HBO's Game of Thrones shares more in common with soap opera than you may have thought...

What is a soap opera? It's a serial with multi-episode narratives, with several strands occurring at once, typically ending an episode with a cliffhanger. They have a reputation for implausible plots, ridiculous couplings, an abundance of misery, memorable characters and surprise deaths. 

So, all in all, I don't feel it's too much of a leap to say that Game of Thrones has elements of a successful soap opera in its make-up, not least in its episodes largely eschewing self-contained narratives in favour of being part of a larger piece and fondness for dramatic revelations. Critics have talked about its appeal to a wider audience than Fantasy fans (as if Lord of the Rings, Doctor Who, Harry Potter, Lost, The Twilight Zone...etc. hadn't happened), and I think this is hugely indebted to the show sharing elements that keep people watching Hollyoaks (as well as the occasional cast member). 

As many of the actors and crew say on the featurettes, Game of Thrones is about people, it just so happens to be set in a detailed and nuanced fantasy world. It is somewhat depressing that people feel the need to say this as if it is somehow revelatory or distinguished, but there you go. It has always been standard for Fantasy to be both 'about people' and 'full of cool wizards and shit', to use a technical term beloved of many Inklings members.


What Game of Thrones has that most soaps don't, of course, is a detailed and nuanced fantasy world (although, thinking about it, Eastenders does technically start the way of all good fantasy, with a bloody great map). Soaps don't have that. Yet. It also has dragons (although, metaphorically...), gore (Cody Willis gets shot), nudity (again, Neighbours is ahead of the game) and houses with sigils and mottos (for example, the Tully sigil is a stone fish, and Neighbours has...nevermind, this is getting tenuous). Like Hovis and Star Trek, it's the best of both worlds (other breads and Sci-Fi franchises are available). 

If you're the sort of person whose happy place consists of Richard Taylor nasally enthusing about the unique stitching on the inside of every suit of Gondorian armour, the production design and world-building of Game of Thrones is the nearest thing you're going to get on a TV budget. If you're the sort of person who regards Bradley's death in the live episode as one of the great TV moments, then you’re also in for a massive treat. Dirty Den being taken out by a hitman is one thing, but it’s no golden crown is it? Eastenders isn’t really allowed to go for death by molten metal, though I’d bet that they would do it if they thought they could get away with it. Look out Shane Ritchie. Some of us still haven’t forgiven you for what you did to Peter Simon in Run the Risk

Outside of Soap Operas, this isn't unique to Game of Thrones. Comics, The Fades, Doctor Who, and more recently Utopia have all used these techniques to varying degrees. In the commentary to The League of Gentlemen series one, the comedy group discuss the audience reaction to the reveal of a long-lost son, and the gasps it elicited. The only reason it had been in there was as a framework to hang jokes off, but people had become emotionally invested in it. It had become more than a comedy show to them, the characters were people that they cared about (even, in this case, an inbred incestuous couple who regularly murdered people who threatened their way of life. Sound familiar?). Achieving this is not as simple as it sounds. If you want to know how to do this on a regular basis, watch a Soap Opera. 

Because Soaps are popular, and populist entertainment (the name derives from adverts for cleaning products placed during such dramas, broadcast during the day and aimed at housewives) they are often accused of dumbing down. Fortunately this is only ever done by idiots who don't realise they are simplifying something, and are guilty of what they accuse others. Isn't that touchingly pathetic? 

Juggling different plots, introducing new characters, and attracting a regular audience in the face of stiff competition aren’t easy. Plus, soap's intrinsic nature is demanding of its viewers. Ignoring the obvious answer of 'utter insanity', do you have any idea what's going on in Hollyoaks if you just dip into an episode? It requires patience and effort to memorise everyone's names, their families, who they get on with, and dear god, is that really Jeff Rawle? I like to imagine he's still playing Cedric Diggory's Dad in Hollyoaks, only gone a bit wrong. 

Game of Thrones takes not an entirely dissimilar approach. You are required to invest in the storylines and keep up as they plough along regardless. Anyone asking to explain what is going on is in for a lengthy 'Well, she is having an affair with him, and her family hates his family...' ramble. Game of Thrones is also able to show more explicit material, and given its medieval fantasy context the inclusion of incest is less outlandish than it might be in Coronation Street, but I've now witnessed three people saying 'Okay, so he's the brother of the blond incest ones and that's Cat's sister who was married to the guy who died before the first episode that really Jerome Flynn?' 

This comes entirely from the books. A Song of Ice and Fire is at least as influenced by Soap Operas and serials as it is by Tolkien-esque high fantasy. George R. R. Martin though, seasoned pro that he was when he began A Song of Ice and Fire, was completely aware of what he was doing. Since the Eighties he has worked in television as a consultant, producer and script writer (including many teleplays for The Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast), so he knows the form. Soap Operas had been pioneered on American television, and Martin is the right age to have grown up during their early years and taken note. Twists, turns and tales of the unexpected keep people interested; surprise reveals and cliffhangers keep people watching. 

Populating a world with families who had been at war in the literal rather than figurative sense, and giving them a couple of continents to play on rather than one street is expanding the basics of a soap opera into a bigger scale. Rather than call each other slags, these characters make graphic, specific and biologically themed oaths. Instead of spilling out of the pub because of what Sharon said about our Trev, they start sword fights in the street and people get stabbed right in the eye because of that time Cat went off and nicked Tyrion. 

So, if you’re a Fantasy fan who likes Game of Thrones but who doesn’t watch River City (created by Doctor Who fan favourite and the author of the Proclaimers musical, Stephen Greenhorn), maybe the process works the other way. Maybe you’ll be able to watch soaps and gradually come to terms with the lack of magic, nudity and stabbings, but recognise the character dynamics and find something to enjoy. 

Or, maybe, like me, you’ll think that five episodes a week is a bit much. I mean, it's all very well demanding that we pay attention, but some of us have still got three series of Blake’s 7 to get through, thank you very much. 

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LOL! This is a load bollocks but you sure know how to sell it. I'm almost convinced. Good article.

All drama shares most of the same page-turning building blocks of plot twists, personality clashes and intrigue, from Soaps to serials like Game of Thrones and Mad Men, to Shakespeare plays and so on.
The conveyor-belt construction of Soaps sets it apart, slightly, from the more personal vision of GoT, though. Soaps are potboilers; GoT is, at least, the kind of storytelling that has one strong authorial voice.

This is the laziest, most pointless article I have read on this site. So basically what this article says is Game Of Thrones shares similar narrative structure and plot threads as Hollyoaks. In other words, there is a bit in one show that is a bit like another show which means they're pretty much the same thing. I wonder if he knocked this article out an hour before deadline...?

I'd make the argument that Spartacus is more like a soap than Game of Thrones.

I didnt read all of the article, but I do find Game of Thrones over reliance on boobs tedious. I usually like boobs, but it seems like the 5 Kingdoms are located in Hugh Hefners backyard.

Imagine any other show doing the same, having every inch of plot be driven by the desire for more boobs (or by the scheming of women who use boobs in said scheming), or read out loud by a character receiving head by a pair of gigantic boobs.

I got no agenda here really... Seems repetitive, is what I'm getting at, I guess...

Not the best article Ive ever read on hear chaps. I mark with my red pen 'must try harder'.

TV shows started doing series-long stories with Twin Peaks. So we could say that was the first non-soap opera 'soap opera'. Since then there's been loads of shows that do the same thing. Lost, The Shield, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Rome, etc. Saying Game of Thrones is also a soap operas is neither new or insightful.

Your not kidding is an EPIC Load of Bollocks! Game of Thrones like Eastenders? PLEASE!

The best thing that could happen in Eastenders , is if a dragon DID turn up and cremate the entire square, everyone in it, and anyone that works on it so it never gets made again.

At least Game of Thrones has some happy scenes in it! And since when did Game of Thrones have a lot of miserable people sitting in rooms shouting at one another? Which one in Game of Thrones is supposed to be Ian Beale or Bianca? Does this mean Stanis is supposed to be Phil Mitchel? If Game of Thrones is Eastenders, they would be re using plots again by now as its the third season. Or someone who was straight for YEARS would suddenly turn into a Lesbian overnight, and then after six months decide to turn back straight again and it would be never mentioned anymore (Sonia in Eastenders) can you tell I hate that show? Every time I hear the theme tune I feel like throwing up.

Its the very embodiment of everything that's wrong with the BBC and viewing habits today.

Eastenders = Mindless miserable crap churned out week after week, by boring over paid idiots, with plots that get re used every six months, and all people do in it are fight, argue, cop off with each other, then split up, then fight, argue and so on...The people that watch it are either brain dead, have no imagination, or watch it because they like to see other people suffer and this then makes them feel better about their own pathetic lives.

Game of Thrones = Plots, Intrigue, Imagination, Fantasy, Fighting, Action, Adventure, Nice Locations, Good Story, twists and betrayals, Magic, Witchcraft ,Fantasy Creatures, Interesting motivated characters with depth and some decent acting by all involved. Then you have the odd bit of sex and some shouting I agree.

I know which one I would rather watch...seriously though ...Who watches Eastenders? I always have a great deal of trouble understanding what people find so good about it. Do the women watch it for hunky butch alpha male blokes like Phil Mitchel / Jack etc? I just don't get it. I know everyone is different, but honestly!?!

How do I know so much about it? My wife watches it every time the blasted thing is on. So I retreat to my computer room, and Den of Geek, Doctor Who and whatever game I am playing at the time.....

If soaps were like Game of Thrones I'd spend too much time watching TV

Sorry a rubbish & wrong article. The nature of soaps is that they are low grade drama content to recycle the same plots over & over & over again. Soaps have no end & this is the key difference between them & proper drama which has a beginning middle & end.

That's okay, so long as you mark out 'hear' and replace it with 'here' with that same pen.

Why does this article exist?

Ummm. Are you talking about the books? Or the TV -shows? None of which are written by George, but by a committee of TV-hacks. Just like soaps are.

I think this article is pretty accurate - but it is a criticism that could be leveled at essentially all serial TV shows. The real difference between soaps and any other form of televised TV serialized story is the production value. Soaps are inherently cheap and disposable, likes jokes in an Airplane movie - if you didn't like that last gag don't worry because another one is already on the way. Whether throwing money (or boobs) at a weak story can elevate it to greatness is another discussion.

I think the word that might be needed is 'saga'.

Shut your gay homo mouth, boobs are cool if you don't like it go watch gayme of thrones and not game of thrones.

What you never heard of a Soap Opera getting canceled?

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